Unleashed, but Barely Alive and Breathing

There’s an old saying in the tech world: “To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer“. Having spent some time reading various articles on the DWP’s Universal Credit system, and having been one of the techies waiting to start work on it, (now not working on it at all due to changes made by the DWP), I sincerely believe that the saying should be modified to read: “To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a government“.

The whole idea of Universal Credit was an admirable one. Collating and simplifying payments to benefit claimants into one monthly payment, linking it into the HMRC system so that there was no need to sign on or sign off when leaving or starting a job, levels of benefit changing depending on the salary received, reducing fraud, all wonderful things promised by a sparkling new system to be in place by October 2013, shiny, new and tested and working.

This isn’t going to happen.

Instead we are given a multi-tentacled, money-sucking monster that, barely alive and breathing, threatens to destroy every benefit claimant that is caught in its foetid maw, and one which will not now be fully unleashed until 2017. Part of the problem has been the ruckus occurring at top management level, with two stepping down and moving on and one sadly passing away.

The rest of the problem lies with the system itself. It appears that there is actually only one job centre testing the system, (“Pathfinder”), in Ashton-Under-Lyme, while the two others, (Oldham and Warrington), are not due to start testing now until the end of August. Apparently they are only using single people, newly unemployed, to test the system, which is a bit like testing a car by driving it around a smooth track at five miles per hour and declaring it safe. What’s worse is that the HMRC real-time information (RTI), system which is supposed to supply the claimant data is still being developed so the Pathfinder rollout has had to be halted while the data is entered manually. According to an article in The Register:

“civil servants have had to do the sort of basic tasks that were originally intended to be done automatically, like data entry and the verification of basic information about a client such as date of birth, address or right to claim the dole – even though a small number of clients with relatively simple personal situations have been chosen to take part.”

Under no circumstances should this software have been allowed out into the real world in this condition. Entering data by hand on a live system, data that, if entered wrongly, could threaten people’s already precarious financial stability, is ridiculous. If the HMRC RTI system isn’t ready then don’t roll out UC until it is. Using such a simplistic approach and such basic data, probably in the hope that all would work well and the politicians could hold it up as a shining example of government IT, is idiotic in the extreme. I could understand if this approach was for comparison purposes, ensuring the data from the HRMC matched the claimant, but it isn’t.

You rarely see this level of idiocy in a business setting.  It’s yet another case of government touting something wonderful without knowing whether is can actually be delivered on time and within budget. Universal Credit will now be added to the ever-growing list of  huge government IT projects that have, along with the NHS & Child Support, ended up as bloated, over-budget embarrassments which could have been delivered properly had the government listened to the right people.

Sorry, rant over.